A number of comments have been emailed to me or posted online about Lying for Life? and Lying for Life, Continued – some in support, some in protest. To those who supported the argument: Thank you for your thoughts and encouragement. To those who protested: Allow me one more post to explain why I think your arguments faulty.
My argument was a surgical strike, but some of its critics seem to have misidentified the target. I criticized only lying -- deliberately saying what one knows to be false with the intention to deceive. An ambush deceives, a silence withholds information, a statement about the time of day in the context of a stage play may be known by the actors to be false, but these are not lies because the other conditions of lying are not met. So my criticism of lying is not refuted by pointing out that these other acts are sometimes right.
A variation on that mistake was posted by a reader at the excellent online journal MercatorNet who commented, “It's my understanding that the pro-life people in the videos were paid actors. Pretending is what actors do. It is very different from lying.” Yes, it is different, but from the fact that what actors say in a play isn’t lying, it doesn’t follow that what they say offstage isn’t lying. That is like suggesting that if a locksmith burglarizes a safe, it isn’t theft because opening locks is what locksmiths do.
Quite a few critics object that if lying is wrong, then we must also condemn all “stings” and exposés, which seems to them extreme. But the inference is mistaken. Since there is no reasonable expectation of privacy in the commission of an illegal act, one may certainly make a secret video of the people who are committing it. There is no obligation to announce “Look what I am doing!”
Other critics propose false analogies. Yes, I know about the plot to kill Hitler, but the ethical question in that case was assassination, not lying. False analogies have also been urged from Scripture. One writer asked, “Was Nathan the prophet wrong to tell King David a made up story -- a lie -- so as to open David’s eyes to his sin?” But the very wording of the question explains why Nathan wasn’t lying. He wasn’t trying to shut the king’s eyes but to open them; he precisely described David’s sin in the form of a parable. That is why it was so devastating when he declared to his ruler, “You are the man!”
I have also been offered the famous “dirty hands” argument, “Don’t moral obligations sometimes come into conflict, so that one way or another, we are compelled to do wrong?” Certain moral rules have exceptions. For example, in most cases I should return property which has been left in my keeping when the owner demands it, but it wouldn’t be wrong to hold onto his car keys when he is falling-down drunk. Other moral rules have no exceptions. Such are the prohibitions of the Decalogue. The prohibition of lying has traditionally been understood as a rule of the latter kind. Rules of the former kind can come into conflict, but acting contrary to a rule in a case to which it does not properly apply is not disobeying it. Rules of the latter kind can never come into conflict, so we can never be compelled to disobey them.
The “sin boldly” argument is just the dirty hands argument with a Christian veneer: “Doesn’t our sinful brokenness imply that sometimes we do the wrong thing?” Certainly, but that doesn’t make it right.
The most chilling lines of reasoning are the consequentialist one, “How could anything that does so much good be wrong?” and its close cousin, “In war, all things are permitted.” I ask: Are there intrinsically evil acts or are there not? If we suppose that we may do anything whatsoever for the sake of results, then the contest is already lost. We have become our opponents. There is nothing left to defend.
St. Paul remarks, “And why not do evil that good may come? -- as some people slanderously charge us with saying. Their condemnation is just.”